Guns pose an extraordinary danger, to the households of their owners and to the communities in which they proliferate. So a suburban New York daily, The Journal News, was acting in the public interest when it published a list of names and addresses of 33,000 handgun permit-holders in two counties, freely available from public sources. Even so, we feel uncomfortable with the invasion of privacy and potential for harm, and wonder whether the newspaper might have achieved most of its public-interest goals without outing individual permit-holders.
Some media critics, such as Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute in Florida, say the newspaper would have served its readers better by offering more context, such as whether people with criminal records had obtained permits. But people are being killed or injured at an extraordinary rate because of guns, many of them obtained legally. The killing of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Connecticut last month is just one example. Twelve thousand homicides, 18,000 suicides, 600 killed and 14,000 wounded in accidents each year – how much more context is necessary?
The Journal sought to tell readers who has guns so they can know, for instance, whether it is safe to send their children to play at someone else’s home. Yet not all permit-holders have guns at home; and owners of long guns do not need a permit. So people still do not know for sure who has a gun at home.
It is probably awkward to ask a neighbour or parent of your child’s school chum about guns at home, but if you feel poor storage of guns is a danger, you probably shouldn’t be satisfied with the information on the list.
There is a sense of a civilizational clash over guns building in the U.S. Those who abhor guns are fighting back. But three are potential dangers. Thieves could use the list to determine what homes can be robbed of guns, or what homes can be robbed without having to shoot a gun owner. A map without addresses and names probably would have made the point about the mad and threateningly close proliferation of weapons.